Best known for its lo-fi brawlers, Ska Studios doesn’t seem particularly bothered in showcasing the inspiration for its latest game. If our witty strapline didn’t spell it out clearly enough, Salt and Sanctuary is pretty much a 2D rendition of the incredibly popular Souls franchise. From its brutal design hooks and weighty combat right down to the grim atmosphere and Gothic motifs, there’s an unmistakable likeness and one that is far from coincidental.
Much like its muse, Salt and Sanctuary isn’t overtly story-focused. After spending a few moments sculpting your avatar, you awake on a ship amidst a raging storm. As it turns out, you’re a royal guard charged with escorting a princess to her destination. Things quickly go awry, however, as a horde of demonic creatures swarm the lower decks, slaughtering all of the crew members they can find.
Somehow you survive the whole ordeal, washing up on mysterious island shrouded in fog. It’s not long before you uncover your first sanctuary, a small hovel which acts as a checkpoint of sorts. They’re basically a proxy for Dark Souls’ bonfires, scattered throughout the game in order to give players a reprieve from the non-stop action.
Very soon, your attention will turn away from the missing princess to exploring this island and its many foreboding locales. They’re all seamlessly connected, forming a two dimensional patchwork of castles, caverns, and woodland. Loaded with hidden platforms and passageways, there’s decent scope to explore each of these areas, though players are gently nudged along a semi-linear path. Paths occasionally fork and branch out but will often overlap further down the line, connected by a series of unlockable doorways.
This approach to structure gives it a distinct Metroidvania feel, similar to recent games like Guacamelee and Axiom Verge. Although there’s the roleplaying systems running through its veins, Salt and Sanctuary will occasionally surprise players with the odd bit of 2D platforming. Some areas, for instance, will be inaccessible until you come across a specific traversal technique such as wall jumping or manipulating gravity.
Each locale emits a foreboding aura and is chock full of nasties. We’re not just talking about enemies either, with devious traps tucked away out of sight. The similarities to Souls don’t just end there, either. In order to successfully “clear” a zone, you’ll have to take on its reigning boss character. With one or two exceptions, these encounters are as fiendish as they are intense, giving even some of the toughest Souls bosses a run for their money. Without the luxury of being able to circle your opponent in an open three dimensional space, there is arguably a smaller window to dodge attacks and find openings. You’ll often spend those first few attempts floundering aimlessly until you finally nail a rhythmic pattern.
While on the offensive you have your basic light and heavy attacks, with the option to carry a weapon in one hand or both. This switching mechanic also allows players to alternate between two weapon types seamlessly, going from mauls and bows to daggers and staves, for example. Salt and Sanctuary gives plenty of room to experiment using various character builds thanks to its expansive skill tree. As you acquire Salt (Souls, basically) you’ll level up and start fleshing out different branches, unlocking new proficiencies and stat buffs.
During play, the same risk/reward trade-off seen in From Software’s franchise is also employed here too. Die whilst exploring and you’ll lose every grain of Salt before being beamed to the nearest sanctuary. The only way of getting it back is to hunt down the enemy that killed you, forcing players to run the same gauntlet to prove your worth. Thing is, if you’re killed again, that Salt will be lost forever unless you naughtily manage to reboot the game quickly enough.
It goes without saying that Salt and Sanctuary can be oppressive at times. It’s an unapologetically hardcore brawler that can throw you into long periods of despair, especially when butting heads with a particularly tough boss. This is compounded by the harsh gold and Salt penalties imposed upon death, as well as the distance between checkpoints.
However, just like the Souls franchise, it is bound to garner a dedicated following. Part of why those games are so well loved is the abundance of resources created and shares amongst their communities as players guide each other through difficult sections, construct unique builds, and demystify some of their more vague items and descriptions.
One aspect of Salt and Sanctuary which may prove divisive is its visuals. For a long time now Ska Studios has adopted the same art style. Although distinctive, it has that “teenager doodling in a exercise book” look about it that will no doubt put some gamers off. Even so, it’s still hard to argue that the developer hasn’t put a lot of time and effort into realising this Souls-inspired world. Bosses in particular always manage to look imposing as they ready up for an attack.
Salt and Sanctuary is about as far from original as you could possibly imagine. It apes the Souls series almost beat-for-beat, from its core design down to very minor things like the health and stamina bars in the HUD.
That’s not to say that all Souls fans will be immediately drawn in, and by the same token, those who have a hard time seeing their appeal may easily fall in love with Salt and Sanctuary. For all the similarities we’ve drawn between the two, the 2D style of combat is enough of a differentiating factor to give this game legs. With these it manages to sprint well ahead, feeling more like a full-bodied homage as opposed to a cheap knock-off.
Version Tested: PS4